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The struggle to practise social work in Syria as the country collapses into war and retribution

One of the world’s most troubled zones, an estimated 60,000 people have died in Syria since the uprising of March 2011. Save the Children has warned of a “collapse in childhood” in the country, with one in three children having been hit, kicked or shot in the fighting. Sundus Saeed, a volunteer with Hand in Hand for Syria - one of the few aid organisations working in the country - describes the huge task of supporting a traumatised nation.

Sundus Saeed, Hand in Hand for Syria
Since the conflict began in Syria two years ago, families across the country have been torn apart. Children and women have been most affected, their vulnerability to attacks on residential communities perpetuated by the lack of psychiatric help and counselling, and the lack of a social care system.

Prior to the conflict in Syria, the role of social workers was beginning to develop. Largely operating in schools, social workers would liaise with teachers, families and students on non-educational matters and, wherever necessary, if any children were at risk of any kind, they would provide support and counselling.

However, since the uprising, a large number of children are now out of education. Particularly noticeable is a decrease in attendance by girls and a drop in the average days of attendance. Educational establishments are being used as places of refuge for internally displaced Syrians. According to the Ministry of Education/UNICEF, 1,960 schools and other public buildings are hosting IDPs (internally displaced persons) across Syria.  Other schools have been utilised for the purpose of establishing makeshift hospitals, while several have been completely destroyed in shelling. This has meant that the system, which heavily relied on the existence of co-ordination in schools between social workers and parents, has virtually collapsed. 

Due to the large number of casualties involved in the current conflict, there are now significant numbers of orphaned and abandoned children roaming the streets, susceptible to ill-health and abuse. According to Human Rights Watch, children as young as 14 have been drafted into the armed conflict.

The absence of a breadwinner figure in families has led to a lack of reliable income. At the same time, little assistance and aid is reaching these broken families, and their basic needs are not being met. The 2 million internally displaced Syrians, of which children account for 46%, are in a dire and desperate situation.

Reports conducted by the UN have confirmed "increasing vulnerability of the populations inside communal shelters", but in particular outside the shelters. The needs of women and children with regards to their protection and safety have increased; sexual harassment and abuse, domestic violence, early marriage, drop-out of schools, lack of access to basic services and psycho-social needs are prevalent.

Syrian security forces have used sexual violence as a tool of humiliation both inside and outside of detention centres. According to Human Rights Watch, women and girls have been raped and sexually assaulted during raids of their homes. Victims are hesitant to report such attacks because of the stigma attached to sexual violence, and because of limited access into Syria for humanitarian observers and journalists alike, documentation of such cases has been difficult. 

Charities such as Hand in Hand for Syria are providing humanitarian and medical aid as best they can to the affected areas, but with the security situation still a significant hindrance, aid workers have to prioritise meeting people's basic needs, such as medical treatment, food, shelter and warmth. This means counselling and psychological treatment remain a rarity in Syria.

Iman Mujahed, a trustee of the charity, has just returned from an aid trip and recalls the “dead” look in the eyes of children affected by the conflict. “They play as 'normal' children do, but they are reminded of the horrors of the conflict on an everyday basis, with scores of child refugees coming through the barbed wire entrances of the refugee camps, talking amongst themselves like little old men and women with stories of whom they have lost and how. It is tragic to witness their suffering.” 

To deal with the large scale needs of children, Hand in Hand for Syria has opened a children's hospital in the Atmeh border town in Idlib province, which hosts the largest number of refugees in Syria. There is also a new maternity unit nearby, established for an obstetrician previously delivering babies on her kitchen floor, highlighting the fortitude with which many women are dealing with the crisis.

Ms Mujahed added: “These stories are all too common. Stories of children bearing witness to things they should not; mothers bathing their children in what can only be described as orange sludge; small children walking around with no shoes during winter. This children's hospital is but one small step towards helping young victims of the terrible events in Syria.”  

Another initiative of Hand in Hand for Syria has been the distribution of 3,000 children’s books to refugees and schools inside Syria. 'Books for Syria' aims to assist children directly affected by the Syrian crisis, educating them with socially and culturally relevant content, and inspiring them with a new found hope and confidence for the future.

Ms Mujahed said: “On receiving the beautifully illustrated books, the children instantly starting reading them, in awe of the precious gift they had received.

“Despite the ongoing conflict, these initiatives are one step on the road to recovery for the thousands of families and children who have witnessed unimaginable levels of atrocities.”

Ruth Stark, Convenor for the Human Rights Commission of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), said: "Through our connections in IFSW we were aware that social work was beginning to get established in Syria before the collapse of society in the last two years. We are concerned, along with many agencies, about the loss of childhood.

"Social work as a profession was first recognised by the UN as an important contributor to social recovery following the disasters that had befallen people after the Second World War and was awarded NGO status with the UN precisely to advocate and work with others in these situations.

"While this task has fallen primarily to third sector organisations, some UK authorities have loaned staff to countries re-structuring, for example after the fall of the Berlin Wall or civil war in the Balkan countries. All this forms part of the work we are trying to do internationally for social work and social development, as well as to work towards what will be put in place by the UN when the Millennium Goals are reviewed in 2015."

For further details on Hand in Hand for Syria's work visit